It is no big deal to many Americans when people of different religions decide to get married. They'll throw the rice and drink the champagne and choose to forget that marriages today have about a 50% chance of survival--less if they're in California.
But, for many Jews, intermarriage is nothing to celebrate, not even in this day and age.
An Ultimate Threat
No matter what the chances of longevity or happiness, intermarriage represents what many Jews consider to be the ultimate threat to their community: the threat of extinction, particularly now, when the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles estimates that between 30% and 40% of marriages by U.S. Jews are to non-Jews.
Or as Rabbi Maurice Lamm, senior rabbi of the orthodox Beth Jacob congregation in Beverly Hills, sees the threat of increasing intermarriage, "It means the destruction of the Jewish people in no uncertain terms."
The Council on Jewish Life of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles describes the problem in milder but no less concerned language: "The possibility of intermarriage has become a painful reality for so many families and poses very serious concerns for the organized Jewish community. . . . Will the large numbers and the consequences on Jewish identity formation seriously undermine the traditional religious and communal forms of American Jewish life. . . ? Will intermarried couples and their children be 'lost' to Judaism or will it be possible for them to maintain a connection?"
And, some of those affiliated with the council are asking, "Will Jews who've experienced heartbreak and separation in their families because of intermarriage now find any relief?"
As Martin Apel, who served as first chairman of the council's Commission on Outreach to Couples With One Jewish Partner, describes the history of the situation, "In our grandparents' day, if their children married outside the religion, it was a major disaster. Our grandparents were like Tevye in 'Fiddler on the Roof,' and, if a child married outside the religion, the child was considered dead, cut off from the family. Our parents' generation reacted to the intermarriage of a child by crying a lot. The current generation is saying, 'That's got to stop.' "
Three years ago, the commission began looking for solutions to these problems, for answers that are still being refined but are now being discussed publicly.
How to deal with intermarriage and its ramifications is a most complex and controversial issue within the Jewish community. A recent position paper of the commission noted that "the sensitive nature of our subject matter is apparent to us. There are those who would counsel that we leave 'well enough'--or 'bad enough'--alone; that we offer no comfort or companionship from the Jewish community to those Jews who have opted for a non-Jewish spouse. They read that act as Jewish self-alienation, a conscious removal from our people.
"We believe, and experience confirms, that conclusion to be false, time and again. Some of our children who marry 'out of the faith' love their Judaism and our people. They wish to find acceptance in their families and in the Jewish community."
To that end, the commission has attempted to turn threat into opportunity. It has worked with local synagogues and community agencies to establish programs specifically aimed at bringing intermarried Jews back into the Jewish community or helping them to maintain such connections. The commission has also encouraged other programs that deal with introducing Judaism to non-Jews and still others of a self-help variety that teach parents of intermarried children how to cope with their feelings of loss and betrayal.
According to Egon Mayer, a noted expert on Jewish intermarriage and a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, these results in the Los Angeles area have been "absolutely pioneering."
Outreach in Los Angeles
"It's happening in a lesser extent in other places, but I don't think there's any other community that's gone as far as the Los Angeles community in this area," Mayer said during a recent visit to Los Angeles to speak on a forum probing areas of agreement and disagreement on what has become known as "outreach."
Also present for the forum, held at the Jewish Federation Council's offices, were Lydia Kukoff, the national director of the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach, and Rabbi Lamm, considered by some to be the "dean" of the orthodox movement in Southern California.
While both Mayer and Kukoff spoke enthusiastically in favor of outreach programs, Lamm indicated that he preferred limited forms of outreach, specifically "outreach to educate, not outreach to embrace."
"If we're worried about Jewish survival, I don't know if we should be reaching out to the intermarried," he said, adding that he feared that a "willy-nilly" attitude of outreach could be interpreted as giving people an opportunity to say, "OK, I'll intermarry and let them reach out to me."